Unlike dieting, mindful eating is a sustainable way to reach a healthy weight and enjoy the food you eat even more.
Pop quiz: Can you describe what you had for lunch yesterday?
Did you take more than 10 minutes to eat it?
Chances are slim that you answered "yes" to either of those questions. In our fast-paced days, taking time to eat “mindfully” feels like a luxury, not a necessity. That’s why most of us end up scarfing down a salad or sandwich while sitting in a meeting or in front of a screen. It also may explain why so many of us end up with heartburn, digestive problems and stubborn, excess weight.
To avoid those undesirable outcomes, it pays to try mindful eating — essentially, slowing down as we eat, paying attention to our hunger cues and truly taking stock of what we’re eating. Mindful eating delivers benefits to both our physical and mental health, and it’s not as difficult to put into practice as you might think.
Mindful Eating 101
Generally defined, mindful eating is developing an awareness of how the food we choose to eat affects our bodies, our emotions and our thoughts, according to Diane Barth, LCSW, a therapist in New York City. “It’s also about listening without judgment to our body’s communications about what we want to eat and when we want to eat.”
As Joyce Englander Levy, a yoga and meditation teacher, puts it: “At any point in procuring, making, eating, digesting or cleaning up after a meal, you can acknowledge the important role that eating plays in your health and life — that’s also mindful eating.”
Think of mindful eating as the opposite of dieting — a good thing, since research shows that 95 percent of diets don’t work. In mindful eating, there are no rules, no labeling of foods as “good” or “bad,” no judgments. Instead, it is a way of life; a way to take pause and a way to bring a profound sense of self-awareness and care to how we feed and nourish ourselves.
"Unlike dieting, with mindful eating there are no rules, no labeling of foods as 'good' or 'bad' and no judgments."
How to Practice It
“Take a few deep breaths before you begin eating to smell the food, calm the nervous system and express gratitude,” suggests Levy.
If this sounds more like the start of a meditation session than a meal, there's a reason. Mindful eating is a lot like meditation, says Janine Higbie, an integrative and functional nutritionist in New York City. “Similar to a meditation practice, mindful eating requires you to intently focus and eliminate distractions.” She suggests the following steps for taking a more mindful approach to food:
- Slow down. It takes about 20 minutes for your brain to receive hormonal signals that you’re full. That should be the bare minimum length of your meal to allow time to recognize when you're full and put down your fork.
- Chew food thoroughly. The amount you should chew depends on the type of food — for example, cooked lentils require less chewing than a piece of steak — but 32 times is often quoted as the magic number, if you’re a numbers type.
- Utilize all of your senses to taste and fully experience your food. Notice how it looks, smells, feels and tastes. Observe the flavor, texture and temperature of the food.
- Remove all distractions like television and social media while eating to give full attention to your food and the experience of eating.
- Be aware of hunger and fullness signals and honor these cues in deciding when and how much to eat.
- Without judgment, reflect on how the food makes you feel during and after the meal. Use this insight to guide future choices.
The coolest part? Mindfulness, like any other skill, becomes stronger with practice. And when you develop it, you have that skill for life.
Benefits of Mindful Eating
Through deepening your awareness while eating and thoughtfully choosing what foods to consume, you can start to transform your health for the better. Here are three benefits:
1. Your digestion improves through more intuitive choices.
When we pay attention to how we feel after we eat, it can change our minds about what to eat in the first place. “We all have our own unique constitutions and not all foods are easily digestible by all people,” Levy notes.
“If we mentally do a digestive body "scan" after we eat and notice that we feel bloated, too full or lethargic, we might choose to replace the foods we aren’t digesting well with something that our body finds more nourishing and agreeable.” For example, if you take time to notice that gluten causes you to feel bloated and uncomfortable, it’s much easier to remove it from your diet.
2. You are able to maintain a healthy weight more easily — whatever that looks like to you.
"When we eat with the purpose of loving and nourishing our bodies, it can help us maintain a healthy body weight," says Levy, who adds that there is a lot of appreciation involved in mindful eating — something that's missing in many of our relationships with food.
3. Your taste preferences may change, for the better.
“By learning about our food sources, we can let our rational mind help us make better choices about what to eat,” Levy explains. In other words, it isn’t just about physically developing a taste for healthier, whole foods. It's also about rationally knowing that there are chemicals in processed foods, as well as added fats and sugars, that are designed to trick you into eating more. Having this knowledge can help you lose the taste for foods that are processed, rather than whole, Levy says, helping you to better appreciate foods thats are functional and nutritious.